Tuesday, June 27, 2006

New York, New York 4: Red Hook Report

New York Dock Co., Red Hook fig. a: New York Dock Co.

It all started with a rumour about NY's best selection of bourbon and a warehouse full of Key lime pies. Some things just cry out to be investigated further, even if only by me alone. This time, though, I had no problem enlisting other researchers to join me on my quest. Off we went, taking the sea bus from Pier 17 straight to Red Hook. (And not a moment too soon: Pier 17 was the site of "Kid's Day," a horrifying display of under-10s running around without adequate supervision.) The sea bus left the port and the kids behind. The water was choppy, Governor's Island was lovely, and the wind blew our hair around. A cheap thrill at just $5 per person.

The view of Red Hook from the water is amazing. Old brick warehouses line the shore, some of which are residential, some function as art galleries, others are abandoned. Sadly, a chunk of the waterfront is slated to be demolished to make way for a huge Ikea. Until then, the waterfront's history remains more or less intact. The sea bus docked right in front of a disused tram.

tram, Red Hook fig. b: tramcar

From the water we'd spotted an amazing warehouse covered with potted tropical plants and a greenhouse. Thinking it was some sort of wholesale plant store we made our way along the streets of Red Hook trying to get a better look at it. That's when we stumbled onto Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies.

pies here fig. c: Michelle at Steve's

It was right beside the plant paradise. I made a beeline for the pies while Todd took a look at the plants. Inside the pie place was a tiny counter with a bowl of Key limes. They sell Key limes, a few pies of different sizes, and a frozen Key lime tartlet on a stick dipped in chocolate. This last treat, named the Swingle, was easily the best thing I have ever eaten on a stick, and probably the best Key lime-based dessert I've ever encoutered. It was a knockout. The curd was smooth, tart and refreshing. The chocolate added a sweet richness. A perfect product. I agree wholeheartedly with Steve's philosophy: When you make something that's this perfect, why make anything else? (They don't.) While Stephen and I ate our Swingles, Todd was peering into what we thought was a plant wholesaler but was actually someone's home. This someone came out and wasn't too friendly, either. We walked quietly away and hoped he wouldn't chase us. He didn't. We thought about getting another Swingle, but even I have to draw the line somewhere every once in while.

bar, Red Hook fig. d: Sunny's

Red Hook used to be a bustling port, crawling with sailors on shore leave. Their first stop? Probably Sunny's, a bar that's been around since 1890. We were in dire need of a drink when we got to the door. Too bad it doesn't open until 8:00 p.m., Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays only. We took a longful look inside and continued down to Van Brunt St. in search of booze.

1 cider, 1 bourbon, 1 bottle of cachaça (not pictured) fig. e: hooch from LeNell's

And booze we found at LeNell's, along with free and exceedingly generous samples of caipirinhas and Brazilian barbeque. (Note to shopkeepers: samples work. We came home with a bottle of cachaça after tasting their samples, plus wine, cider, and bourbon.) When I walked into LeNell's, I felt like I'd come home. It's the liquor store I dream of in this uptightly Protestant country of ours. A claw-foot tub sits in the window filled with a selection of gin. Their bourbon section takes up three full shelves, and I do mean full. And when I asked the proprietor if she had any elderflower cordial, she looked at me and said, "I'd love to get my hands on some of that stuff." So would I. Tonya LeNell Smothers (hence the name) is a friendly, knowledgeable lady, and if her southern accent doesn't charm you, her selection of booze will. Ask her about her mezcals. You won't regret it. And if you happen to come from a bourbon-deprived region of the world, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better assortment. Don't be a fool. Get on that sea bus.

Steve's Authentic Key Lime Pies, 204 Van Dyke St.
Sunny's, 253 Conover St.
LeNell's Ltd., 16 Van Brunt St.
(all in Red Hook, Brooklyn, NY)


Saturday, June 24, 2006

Happy St. Jean! (rev. ed.)

currants (detail) fig. a: red currants by George Brookshaw (detail)

Yes, today is St. John the Baptist's feast day, one of the very oldest Christian feast days (quite possibly the oldest), a day that evolved into "la Fête Nationale" in these parts over the last two centuries due in part to St. John's status as the patron saint of Quebec and the tireless work of the St. Jean Baptiste Society. At one time one of the most hallowed of saint days, a day that rivalled Christmas in importance on the Christian calendar, St. John the Baptist's feast day has since gone overwhelmingly secular in Quebec, and like most celebrations of its kind, people typically celebrate "la St. Jean" with picnics, fireworks, barbecues, parties, and flag-waving and other such shows of pride. What many of you may not know, however, even those of you who live here in Quebec (we sure didn't until Michelle leafed through her brand new copy of George Brookshaw's Pomona Britannica the other day), is that not only is John the Baptist the patron saint of Quebec, he's also the patron saint of currants because of their tendency to ripen around the time of his feast day. This discovery changes everything! I've always had mixed feelings about the fleur-de-lys and its ancien regime associations anyway. From now on St. Jean's going to be all about the cassis in this household. Michelle's off to the market to see if she can't find some fresh currants for dessert and tonight we're planning on toasting The Precursor with a cassis-spiked apéro. Cheers!

Guess who just got back from the market?

fresh red currants fig. b: red currants by Mother Nature

Not quite at their peak yet, but they're pretty close...


(Pomona Britannica by George Brookshaw is yet another one in the lovely series of botanicals Taschen has been reprinting over the last several years.)

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

New York, New York 3: The Great N.Y. Noodle Wars

One reason we could afford to be cavalier about our bbq bust at the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party was because by that time we were already in the midst of the survey (an ever so brief one, given we were only in New York for 2 1/2 days) we'd decided would be the focus of our trip: noodle shops. Noodle shops? Well, Michelle had had an almost monomaniacal fixation on New York's noodle shops and on Momofuku in particular for several months before we made it down. She'd been following the press on Momofuku and its delirious take on Asian street and counter food closely, but things reached critical mass when Momofuku chef David Chang's girlfriend paid a visit to Les Chèvres a few weeks ago. Michelle got to talking her up, she got herself even more revved up about Momofuku than she'd been up to that point (I wasn't sure that was possible), and when she came back from her shift that night she just looked me dead in the eyes and said, "Pack your bags." So, we went to New York knowing we were going to be paying Momofuku a visit, but when we arrived we hadn't yet settled on a theme for our visit. Which tour was it going to be? In search of real Italian-American pizza? The Latino explosión? Kosher Cuban-Chinese, the untold story? We looked into the pizza option quite seriously: we solicited opinions, gauged preferences, and took notes. Based on our research, we decided that no pizza survey would be complete without a trip to the legendary DiFara in Brooklyn, where every pie is made with care by the proprietor, Dom, and the artichoke pizza involves gently sauteeing the artichoke for a full 30 minutes before topping the pizza with it. The thing is, we'd heard that DiFara had been closed unexpectedly a couple of times in recent months for reasons having to do with health. Dom's getting up there in age, we were told, and seeing as he's the only one who handles the pies at DiFara, they haven't always been able to open up on schedule recently. We called DiFara repeatedly over the course of a couple of days but never managed to get through. After everything we'd heard and read about the place, the thought of carrying out a pizza survey without going to DiFara and having some of that artichoke pie seemed anti-climactic, to say the least, so we started to consider alternatives. And seeing as we were already had our sights set on Momofuku and, god knows, we're starved for quality noodles shops of any and all stripes here in Montreal (Michelle tried to impress this upon Mr. Chang's girlfriend: we need quality Asian counter food here now), we just shifted gears a bit and started to think "noodles." Suddenly the geography of our research changed quite drastically; now, all of a sudden, instead of having a quest that might very well have taken us from South Brooklyn, to Lower Manhattan, to Harlem, we were very much concentrated on the East Village and Chinatown and that suited us just fine.

chinatown, NYC fig. a: just some of the mysteries of Chinatown

Now, among all the other things that are radically different about New York's food culture as compared to that of a city like Montreal, one of the most striking is just how politicized it is. People have their opinions here in Montreal, sure, but they're rarely all that vehement about them. They're divided over things like where to find the best bagels, the best smoked meat, the best steak, and maybe the best Portuguese, Greek, or Indian, but it's rare that you feel like you've touched a nerve with someone when you bring up such matters. In fact, we find ourselves constantly trying to provoke these kinds of heated discussions, but unfortunately no one ever takes the bait. Go to New York, however, talk to the right people, and you find that nearly every food issue is highly divisive, splintering people into myriad competing camps. For a city of its size, Montreal's culinary side is impressive, but New York has so much more to offer and so many more people who take these things seriously, and the stakes are so much higher. I guess it should come as no surprise that culture wars are waged each and every day there over the subject of food. Bring up the topic of noodle shops with any New Yorker who happens to take their dining seriously and you might very well end up in a firestorm.

Ultimately we settled on four noodle shops, two Chinese and two Japanese (definitely not tons for a survey, but not bad considering we hit three of them over a 15-hour span). We lapped up the BBQ dishes at N.Y. Noodle Town, like the BBQ duck and the spare ribs, and the dumplings at Wonton Garden (like these lovely shrimp dumplings)

dumplings at Wonton Garden fig. b: shrimp dumplings at New Wonton Garden

always blow our minds, but it was the Japanese noodle dishes we were craving the most because Montreal is a veritable desert in the Japanese noodle department and neither of us has quite been the same since we left Vancouver behind, where we'd eaten ramen, udon, gyoza, and other Japanese noodle bar classics regularly.

Japanese noodle stop #1 was Rai Rai Ken and when we got there I thought I was dreaming. It'd be hard to imagine a more perfectly classic Japanese noodle bar. I mean, just look at that entrance.

Rai Rai Ken from 10th St. fig. c: Rai Rai Ken from 10th St.

We started with an order of pan-fried gyoza stuffed with pork and shrimp and a bowl of edamame to nibble on, then made up our minds about our ramen selections. There were four of us out together, so between the lot of us we were able to try every variation of ramen available from their small menu. We ended up ordering two shoyu ramens, one shio, and one miso. All three varieties came with braised bamboo shoots, hard-boiled egg, one of those distinctive pink fish cakes, a healthy slice of pork, spinach, a sheet of seaweed, and diced scallions.

shio ramen at Rai Rai Ken fig. d: perfection incarnate, or shio ramen at Rai Rai Ken

Each of the three broths was delicious, but my favorite was the one I selected, the shio, or seafood broth, which had that perfect combination of flavor and subtlety. The miso broth was one of the boldest, most interesting miso broths I've ever encountered, but I found it a bit too rich for my liking. The shoyu broth was good, but perhaps on bit too strong on the shoyu. All in all, though, these were top-notch ramen soups at very affordable prices, and I can't say enough about the atmosphere. If I lived in New York, I'd be a regular.

decor at Rai Rai Ken fig. e: decor, Rai Rai Ken

The next day, just before hopping on the FDR and making our way off the $24 island, we stopped back in the East Village to take lunch at Momofuku. Truth be told, this was the second time Michelle had gone that weekend: she'd popped in for a snack the day before and had an order of steamed pork buns. The steamed pork bun had been such a smash hit that she insisted that we order them again--ostensibly, so that I could have the pleasure of trying them, but actually so that she might have her third steamed pork bun in two days. Like a good number of the other offerings at Momofuku, the steamed pork buns come stuffed with the restaurant's signature braised Iowa Berkshire pork.

pork bun, Momofuku fig. f: steamed pork bun, Momofuku

You can see it there stuffed within a steamed bun, garnished with cucumber and dressed with a teriyaki-like sauce, and the rumors are true: it's some of the most succulent tasting pork you're likely to find. I still love the purity and unity of a good Chinese pork bun--the inspiration behind this version--but Momofuku's was outstanding, if unconventional, and the cucumber was a surprisingly refreshing addition.

We then proceeded to the main dishes and Michelle ordered the house special Momofuku Ramen, complete with a "Berkshire pork combo." Many of Momofuku's specialties are based on the notion of taking some kind of classic dish--a steamed pork bun, say--and staying true to its basic architecture, while making some key substitutions. Their ramen is no exception. Staples like the braised bamboo shoots, seaweed, fish cake, and diced scallions are all there, but peas appear in place of a green like spinach, the egg is poached instead of boiled, Chang replaces the standard cut of pork typical of the Japanese ramen with two different types of his Berkshire pork--his braised pork and a few generous slices of fatty, ultra-flavorful pork belly--and the only broth available is his unexpectedly subtle house pork broth. As tasty as the pork belly was, it had the effect of turning the Momofuku Ramen into an event, and Michelle confessed that the next time she'd opt for the more subdued "ramen with shredded Berkshire pork" (which, at $10, is also $4 less than the Momofuku Ramen).

The true revelation of our luncheon, however, was my Ssäm. I have to confess, at the time that I ordered it, I really had little idea what exactly I was ordering. The ingredients--"Berkshire pork, rice, edamame, onions, pickled shiitake, kimchi"--all sounded great to me, but I was expecting some kind of a fried rice dish, or possibly even a rice-based soup. Then, as we ate our appetizers and took in the scene, we started to notice the cooks assembling an intriguing-looking dish that we couldn't quite place. We studied one cook closely for a minute or two and when we were done we turned to each other and said, "That's gotta be the Ssäm." You see, what Chang has done here is that he's taken a Korean street food classic, bo-ssam--one variation on which involves marinated and grilled pork, a spicy condiment made of soy, garlic, and chili paste, and a pile of lettuce leaves--and teased out some of the similarities it bears to Mexican-American street food, transforming it into a sort of Korean-American burrito, if you can imagine that.

ssäm, Momofuku fig g: ssäm, Momofuku

Edamame replace the pinto or black beans, kimchi replaces the salsa, and the tortilla is replaced, ever so cleverly, by a mu shu crêpe, but otherwise the dish is assembled in the way a San Francisco-style burrito would be, right down to the foil wrapper. I'm not one to fall for novelties generally, but when something's this outrageous and, more importantly, this delicious, it's hard to argue. News that Chang is planning on starting up a neighboring counter restaurant in the coming months that will showcase the Ssäm the way Momofuku showcases ramen soups comes as no surprise (even if I still can't figure out what that umlauten is there for).

decor, Momofuku fig. h: decor, Momofuku

The subject of Momofuku--its food, its rock-n-roll attitude, its decor, etc.--elicits by far and away the strongest reactions from New York's culinary cognoscenti, ranging from positive (hip, tasty) to negative (overhyped, arriviste). We'd heard all the arguments and counter-arguments (no pun intended) by the time we sat down to eat. All I can say is that jumping into the fray has rarely been this pleasurable.

My only regrets of the weekend ("You mean, aside from having missed out on barbecue at the Block Party and never having made it to DiFara for that artichoke pie?")? Not ordering Momofuku's Roasted Long Island Razor Clams with "Kurowycky sausage" (recalling the East Village's Eastern European past) and ginger scallion sauce, and, even more importantly, not finding the time for Minca, yet another popular East Village noodle haunt. Next time.

N.Y. Noodle Town, 28 Bowery St., (212) 349-0923
New Wonton Garden, 56 Mott St., (212) 966-4886
Rai Rai Ken, 214 E. 10th St., (212) 477-7030
Momofuku, 163 1st Ave, (212) 475-7899


Monday, June 19, 2006

New York, New York 2: BBQ Bust

Talk about a Dream Team! Check out this lineup:

bbq block party pitmasters

These were the award-winning pitmasters the good people at The Big Apple Barbecue Block Party had managed to bring in for their 4th annual bash, and we were particularly excited about Ubon's "Champion's Choice" and Bib Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q's pulled pork shoulder, and Mitchell's BBQ whole hog, all three of which were accompanied by legendary cole slaws, and intrigued by Smoki O's St.-Louis-style rib tips, which came with baked beans. These outfits represented the styles and traditions we were most interested in taste-testing, and the fact that they also had the best names didn't hurt either.

The only problem is that we never did taste a lick of barbecue that afternoon. Nothing. Nada. Rien. Not a single, solitary rib. Not a shred of pulled pork. This unfortunate outcome wasn't for lack of trying, though. You see, by the time we went it was about 2:00 or 3:00 on Sunday afternoon and after only two days on the road we were already in "vacation mode," not in the "eyes on the prize mode" we should have been in until we'd secured a couple of plates of pulled pork shoulder and some rib tips. Actually, we got down there in plenty of time, but the "mistake" we made was to stop in at the beer tent, order a few frosty ones, and relax for a bit in the bright sunshine that was raining down on Madison Square Park that day. In all honesty, it never occurred to me that once we purchased those beers we wouldn't be able to roam freely, check out the action in the pits, and queue for 'cue, and that, in fact, we'd be corraled into a fenced-in area of the park until we'd polished off our beverages. I'll never get over just how uptight those kind of restrictions seem to me. Anyway, by the time we made it out of the designated beer drinking area and over to the area where the pitmasters were lined up doing what they do best, panic was already rippling through the crowd. Rumors that 1 or 2 pit crews had run out of barbecue entirely were circulating, and those of us who hadn't yet scored anything started desperately trying to figure out what our best prospects were among the 8 or so massive lineups that remained. The other "mistake" we made was that for the most part our group was hell-bent on getting ourselves pork barbecue in particular and not beef brisket. Either the pulled pork specialists just didn't bring enough pig, or they just happened to be the more popular option at this year's Block Party (the more likely scenario)--either way, it was the pork BBQ guys that all ran out first. Before we knew it, our group had been stalemated on all fronts and the only thing left to do was bid adieu (and if the good Lord's willing and the creek don't rise, au revoir) to Madison Square and and the Big Apple Barbecue and disperse into the surrounding city again. After all, New York's a big city and we had plenty of other stops to make--there was no point in dwelling on "what went wrong." Plus, those unbelievable aromas and the sight of dozens, even hundreds, of others digging into their $7 "meat & one" plates was a bit more than we could handle. So we packed things up, telling ourselves the Block Party makes things too easy, too convenient, anyway. What's BBQ without that roadfood vibe? Besides, this way, when we finally get around to making that Southern BBQ Odyssey we've been talking about for the last few years, we'll be going into it with the wide-open eyes of the initiate. Right.

All of which brings me to the topic of "what went oh-so-right" on our NY excursion...


Friday, June 16, 2006

Spring Tea Annual 2006

Hugo presents the best of Taiwan, 2006 fig. a: Hugo brings us the world of Taiwanese tea

Have a cuppa tea, have a cuppa tea,
have a cuppa tea, have a cuppa tea,
Halleluja, halleluja, halleluja, Rosie Lea
Halleluja, halleluja, halleluja, Rosie Lea
--"Have a Cuppa Tea," The Kinks

Today was the day of our tea tasting session at Camellia Sinensis, the day their resident connoisseurs unveiled the discoveries they'd brought back from their respective sourcing trips to the orient this spring. The good people at Camellia Sinensis have been the city's reigning experts on tea since 1998, and they've been sourcing and importing their fine offerings all the while, but over the years their contacts and their knowledge of the Asian tea market have grown considerably and their ability to locate the most interesting teas available and bring them back in saleable quantities has also improved. The result is that their shop--already the best in town, and on par with the best just about anywhere in the western world--has gotten even better over the years, and their tastings and tea workshops have matured accordingly.

Over the course of 2+ hours this morning, we were escorted on a virtual voyage from India to China to Japan and finally to Taiwan in order to sample some of the best teas on offer this year from each region. We sampled quite a number of teas during this period--16 or so--but nowhere near the 900-1,000 teas one might try over a week of tasting in one of the world's great tea-growing regions. Every region had its highlights, but, in my opinion, the two most interesting presentations were those on India and Taiwan, as it was there that we came across the biggest surprises. Of course, this probably says something about my own biases when it comes to teas.

Shocking as this may seem, there was no tea cultivation in India before the British began cultivating it there, creating their tea plantation system in the process. The success of this experiment should be obvious to anyone who knows anything about tea: the British were successfully cultivating high quality teas at low prices within 50 years and India now produces 80% of the world's black tea, the type of tea most commonly consumed in the west. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British made numerous attempts to tap into the vast Chinese market while simultaneously breaking the lockhold the Chinese had on certain commodities. These tensions resulted in not one but two Opium Wars; they also resulted in the establishment of industrial tea production in India. Famously, the British developed a new strain of tea plant in the Indian highlands (Assamica), one discovered in the wild by Charles and Robert Bruce of the East India Company, and they took advantage of its less finicky leaf in order to revolutionize tea production. In addition to making his rounds in search of the finest teas he could find in Darjeeling and Assam this spring, Kevin, our India expert, also set out to trace the very roots (quite literally) of tea production in India. He's yet to publish his findings--keep your eyes open for his article in Tea Almanac later this year--but I can assure you he made some fascinating discoveries. As for the teas he offered us, there's no question that the most impressive was the first one we sampled, the fair-trade, organic Darjeeling Samabeong DJ-1. The Samabeong is grown in some of the very highest tea gardens in the world--the highest, according to Kevin, although there seemed to be a bit of an in-store competition going on over this claim--and not only is it the finest Darjeeling I've ever come across, it also has the uncanny ability to withstand the usually detrimental effects of a long steeping period. It was just as good at the end of the tasting as it had been at the beginning--different, for sure, but just as good--and Kevin claimed that it was a tea of such quality that you could brew a pot and drink half of it before going to bed and the remaining half would still be excellent the next morning, if not piping-hot any longer. My other favorite from our India segment was the unusual organic Darjeeling Gopaldhara DJ-13, a tea that actually belongs to the oolong family and has since become known as "Wonder Tea," although others in our group seemed to prefer the more traditional Darjeeling Margaret's Hope DJ-35 which hails from one of the oldest tea gardens in India.

fig. b: a crate of Gopaldhara, a.k.a. "Wonder Tea"

Our seminars on China and Japan were not without their moments--the light, delicate flavor of the Huiming H1 from China and the rich flavor and elaborate, if abbreviated, ceremony that surrounded the Japanese Macha Wako among them--but as I mentioned, it was some of the Taiwanese selections that we tasted and our in-depth discussion of the elaborate process used in grilling green tea leaves in order to make a fine oolong that really left an impression. For the most part, oolong tea production has changed drastically since the days when the leaves were cooked over charcoal fires for anything from minutes to hours--sometimes repeatedly over a period of years--most producers now using an elaborate system of electrical machinery to reach a similar result, but the process is still enormously time- and labor-intensive. And the nature of oolong--the fact that the leaves are grilled and that in many cases they're grilled then aged then grilled again--means that it's one of the only types of teas that can age and mature, virtually every other tea being best consumed fresh. The first Taiwanese oolong we tried was a young Pinglin Bao Zhong that had extraordinary floral and fruit overtones to it (magnolia and peach, in particular). The Si Ji Chun 2 was also a young tea, but one with a robust flavor with overtones of tire d'érable due to the way the leaves were gently caramelized during its production. The aged Cingshin from 1991 was easily one of my top two teas of the entire event: exceptionally smooth, with light caramel notes to it.

If you haven't yet been to Camellia Sinensis and you're interested in discovering some of the finest and most unusual teas the world has to offer, you really owe yourself a visit. If you're looking to develop a deeper appreciation of tea, there's no better or more pleasant way to do it in Montreal than through one of their tea tastings or workshops.

Camellia Sinensis, 351 Emery, 286-4002


Thursday, June 15, 2006

New York, New York 1

Flatiron Building, Summer, New York, 1947/1948, Rudy Burckhardt

Things came together quickly. Michelle had been lobbying hard for a weekend getaway to New York for a while. It had been over a year since her last visit and she didn't want to put things off any longer. Around Tuesday she found out she might be able to sneak out on her Friday and Saturday shifts. By Wednesday night she'd found a replacement. Then we found out Cat Power (+ the Memphis Rhythm Band) was going to be playing The Town Hall on Friday night and we had tickets waiting for us courtesy of Team Matador. Then we found out about the 4th Annual Big Apple Barbecue Block Party, featuring 10 top pitmasters from across the good ole U.S. of A. Called a rental car outfit, found ourselves a car so we could take the scenic route down to New York (along the Hudson) the way we'd always wanted, and that's all it took. Sold! You see, Michelle, poor soul, has never had real American barbecue of any kind, be it North Carolina-style, Alabama-style, Missouri-style, or Texas-style (taking into account all of the possible regional variations on each of these traditions, of course), and the Barbecue Block Party was going to be featuring all of 'em, plus the work of some New York-based hotshots, and they'd all be concentrated within a convenient 2-block radius of Downtown New York. So we had visions of scouring the city streets in the way we typically do, eating plenty of street food and other tasty take-out items, catching some museum and gallery shows, hitting a few restaurants, immersing ourselves in the crowds and the energy, and catching up with old friends, then topping everything off with a few hours of savoring pulled-pork sandwiches and noshing on smoky ribs--all in the span of 2 1/2 days. What transpired in the end? What did we find on our whirlwind tour of New York? And just how much barbecue did we put away? Stay tuned...

Oh, I nearly forgot. What does the Flatiron Building have to do with anything? Well, you see that cute little park on the left-hand side of Burckhardt's photograh? That's Madison Square Park and that's where the Block Party took place.


Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Top Ten #10

1. Homarus americanus

2. The French Chef on DVD

3. Alice Waters, Patricia Curtan, and Martine Labro, Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza and Calzone

4. Grizzly Man and The Great Ecstasy of Woodcarver Steiner, both dir. Werner Herzog

5. Yung Sing Pastry Shop, 22 Baldwin St., Toronto, (416) 579-2832

big apple labels

6. V/A, Big Apple Rappin’: The Early Days of Hip-Hop Culture in New York City, 1979-1982

7. Momofuku vs. Rai Rai Ken, NYC

8. Vernon, Florida, dir. Errol Morris

9. The Flaming Lips, At War With the Mystics

10. Corner Creek Reserve Bourbon Whiskey


Saturday, June 10, 2006

Boulangerie Potatoes

Boulangerie, 48 rue Descartes, Paris Boulangerie, 48 rue Descartes, Paris, Eugène Atget: who knows what secrets lurked within?

In Think Like a Chef, Tom Colicchio tells the story of how French villages used to feature a central boulangerie where, after the daily bread had been baked, the locals would gather to roast their dinners in the hot ovens. Meats would get roasted on the upper racks of the oven, while potatoes would be placed down below so that the wonderful flavors of the drippings from above—talk about nectar of the gods—would not go to waste, not unlike the way many rotisserie chicken operations here in Montreal still function today. Colicchio then offers up a oven-roasted potatoes recipe that sets out to replicate that “boulangerie effect” without the need for a big juicy roast or a trip to your local bakery (as if).

Boulangerie Potatoes

1/4 lb slab bacon
4 medium leeks, white parts only, trimmed
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
1 3/4 lbs starchy potatoes (such as Idaho), peeled
1 cup rich chicken stock + additional chicken stock, warm
2 tbsp unsalted butter

Heat the oven to 325º F. Slice the bacon into thin strips about 2 inches in length. Cut the leeks in half lengthwise, then slice them into thin semicircles. Cook the bacon over medium heat in a large skillet until rendered but not yet crisp, about 2 minutes. Add the leeks, salt, and pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks begin to soften, about 5 minutes. Add half the thyme leaves and cook, stirring frequently, until the leeks are tender, about 5 minutes more.

Cover the bottom of a medium baking dish with the leek mixture. Slice the potatoes very thin. Arrange them so that they overlap slightly and form rows over the leeks, as you would a Gratin Dauphinois. Pour the stock evenly over the potatoes, then dot them with butter and sprinkle with salt and pepper and the remaining thyme. Cover the pan tightly with aluminum foil and bake for 1 hour. Remove the foil and continue baking until the potatoes are tender, the edges begin to crisp, and the potatoes have turned golden, about 45 minutes more. You may need to add a bit more stock periodically. We did.

Serve warm.

Serves 4 as a side dish.

These were the best potatoes we’ve made, well, since the last time we made a Gratin Dauphinois, in all likelihood. There's no question they're rich in flavor and need to be matched with an appropriate main and probably a nice leafy salad, but they were easy to prepare and darn-near impossible to stop eating. We’re not 100% sure only because we ran out of potatoes before we found out. Prepare at your own peril.


Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Nectar of the Gods

rhubarb schnapps fig. 1: pink rhubarb schnapps and "Schnappsy" the wiener dog-bearing shot glass

Pink lemonade? Pink Lady mix? Pink lightning? No, no, and no. This lovely elixir is none other than rhubarb schnapps--homemade rhubarb schnapps, that is. The verdict is still out on rhubarb schnapps' health benefits, but seeing as rhubarb spent most of its history being championed for its medicinal qualities, we're optimistic. Rhubarb was known in classical Greece and Rome when it was known to flourish in Asia Minor and points east, and, in fact, it appears as though wild rhubarb is native to parts of Mongolia, Siberia, and the region surrounding the Himalayas. Consequently, it was recognized by Chinese herbalists in ancient times, although just how far back is disputed amongst scholars. The perception that rhubarb is a medicinal green remained prevalent for thousands of years, until well into the 19th century. Rhubarb may have been cooked and eaten sometime earlier, largely because of its resemblance to sorrel, but it was only in the 19th century that cookbooks in England began to include recipes using rhubarb, most if not all of them in a sweet vein. By the mid-19th century rhubarb was quite firmly established as staple ingredient in the making of sweet preserves such as compotes and jams, as well as in sweet pies and tarts. From a botanical standpoint, rhubarb is a vegetable--a leafy green with edible stalks--but its identity became tied to the way it was now typically eaten, and in 1947 US Customs Court in Buffalo made things official (as Customs Courts are wont to do), declaring rhubarb to be a fruit.

Personally, we're glad. Non-fruit-based schnapps are hardly unheard of--take kümmel, the caraway seed-flavored schnapps, for instance--but we'd feel a little silly about making a schnapps that was pink and savory. (Now, if it was baby blue, on the other hand...) Like many of you out there, we're big, big fans of rhubarb as a compote and a jam, not to mention in pies, tarts, and crumbles of all sorts, but if you've got a lot of extra rhubarb in your garden and you're not sure how to use it all*, or you want to make something striking and different with that beautiful pink rhubarb that you can find in the markets at this time of year rhubarb schnapps is the answer.

pink rhubarb, Jean-Talon Market fig. 2: pink rhubarb at Jean-Talon Market

Of course, you can make rhubarb schnapps with green rhubarb too, and it tastes just as good, but it just won't look quite so purty in those big old mason jars.

To make rhubarb schnapps*:

enough chopped rhubarb to fill a one-litre jar 3/4 full
150 g granulated sugar
+/- 500 ml vodka

Wash, drain, and then chop the rhubarb. Put it in a one-litre jar, add sugar, then top with vodka. Let sit for 1-6 months, shaking the jar from time to time. Strain and re-bottle. Keeps for a long time. Makes people happy.



* My cousins Paul and Bobby were thrilled to learn how to make rhubarb schnapps from us a few years ago, because they had rhubarb "coming out of their ears." They'd transplanted some of my grandfather's "heirloom" rhubarb when they moved into their respective houses on the Quebec/New Brunswick border years earlier and the rhubarb had since taken over their gardens. They'd give bushels to anyone who wanted any and they were desperate to find ways to prepare rhubarb other than just compote and pies.--aj

** This recipe comes from Nigella Lawson's How To Be a Domestic Goddess. It was this recipe, in fact, that convinced me I had to have that book.--m

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Festival du Homard

Magdalen Islands lobster

First, we were regaled with tales of lobster orgies at a former Lindbergh summer home on a secluded Maine island--complete with lobster breakfasts in addition to a series of 2-lobster-per-person dinners--a couple of weekends ago when Team Matador came up for a visit from New York. Then we watched Julia Child's "The Lobster Show" on The French Chef. Traditionally, lobster season around these parts begins around Mother's Day, with peak season for Magdalen Islands lobster lasting from about May 10 - July 10. We were a couple of weeks late in having our very own lobster feast, but at least we'd gotten ourselves properly primed.

Lobster Monday was a miserable Victoria Day or Dollard Day or Patriots' Day or whatever you want to call it (May 22, for those of you tuning in from outside Canada and/or "la Belle Province"). We'd already been thinking about having lobster, but the weather was so depressing that day we decided we needed something good to eat to compensate. We made a trip to Nouveau Falero and when we got there our decision was made. Their lobster tank had a number of feisty fellows bullying their way around, picking fights. We locked eyes with a couple of 1-lb+ specimens and took the poor guys home with us. These were fairly modest lobsters, somewhere in between "chicken" lobsters and "select" lobsters, nowhere near as big as the 4-lb "jumbo" lobster that dominated the tank at Nouveau Falero, not to mention the near-20-lb "behemoth" lobster Child had on her show, or the almost 4-ft long, 45-lb monster that was caught off the coast of Virginia, of all places, in the 1930s--any bigger and they would have really unnerved the cats.

Child's episode had provided us with two possible routes to take with our lobsters: hot and cold, basically. Because of the raw weather that day we were leaning towards the hot version, but there were things about her cold lobster method that appealed to us--namely the way she turned the lobster's "tamale" into a tasty sauce*--so we settled on a "warm" version.

What you need:

1. You need a rather large pot and maybe even a stock pot (if you're cooking more than one lobster or if you've opted for some oversize "Big Bertha"-type lobsters) and you should fill it with salted water and bring it to a vigorous boil.

2. You also need some shell crackers (kitschy "lobster-colored" and "lobster claw-shaped" shell crackers optional) and a good pair of kitchen scissors.

tools of the trade

3. Abundant amounts of napkins and/or paper towels are also good to have on hand.

4. Finally, you should have some lemon sections and some drawn butter** on hand. If you're planning on dawdling, you might need one of those contraptions that keeps a sauce warm over a candle or other heat-emitting tool, but we made do without just fine.

Now, you could go frou-frou with your lobster and make a whole host of elaborate dishes with it, like Homard à l'Americaine, Homard à la Bordelaise, or Homard Brillat-Savarin, but there's nothing like the pure simplicity of a boiled or steamed lobster meal, or grilled lobsters if you're feeling a bit more adventurous and you're okay with chopping them into parts live. Somehow keeping it simple takes things back to the days when lobsters were a working-class staple of the coastal-dwelling people of New England, the Maritimes, and Quebec, back before the days when John D. Rockefeller, Sr. and his party were accidentally served a lobster stew intended for the servants downstairs, an unfortunate error that would change the status of the Homarus americanus forever, or so the story goes.***

For a simple boiled lobster meal, you need only toss them into your pot of vigorously boiling water and cook them for 5 minutes per pound. When done, a cooking thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the lobster tail should read 165º F. The only other thing you need to do before serving is to drain the lobster of any excess water that might have filled the exoskeleton during the cooking period--just poke a hole into the lobster's head with a knife and hold it upside-down to allow the water to drain. When that's done you're ready to serve. If you want to cool the lobster so that you can handle it comfortably, you just need to place it under cold running water in a colander.

The Maine lobster is without question the world's most famous lobster, but this has a lot to do with the cultural status of America and the diligent work of the Maine lobster lobby, not to mention the fact that Mr. Rockefeller's apocryphal lobster meal was said to have taken place on his estate on the mysteriously named Mt. Desert Island, just off the coast of Maine. In spite of the celebrity of Maine's lobsters, the American lobster can be found as far south as South Carolina, but the Canadian catch is well over twice as big as that of the United States, and the southern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence is the world's largest lobster breeding ground. That being the case, there's a good reason that Montrealers have long been serious about their lobsters and that this time of year it's almost hard to find a restaurant that isn't offering some variation on the ubiquitous "Festival d'Homard."

Our first lobster meal of the year was the first time either of us had ever boiled lobsters live, it was also Michelle's very first lobster meal ever (!). I came from a lobster-eating family, Michelle most certainly did not. Boiling the lobsters was kind of a big deal for both of us, but we made peace with our catch and dealt with them as humanely as possible: head-first. I thought I'd seen Michelle at her happiest during a couple of crab meals we had over the last year--one on our trip to San Francisco, and one just a few weeks ago when we had snow crabs here at home. The lobster meal took the cake, though. When it came to eating crab, Michelle was happy to show off her admirable patience and attention to detail. When it came to lobster, though, Michelle found that struggling a lot less but somehow still getting rewarded with enormous pieces of tender lobster meat has its charms. Not only were the cats suddenly a lot less unnerved by the presence of these two crustaceans, they had it the easiest of all. Their lobster meat came fresh and au naturel, with no shell to deal with whatsoever.


*To make this tasty sauce: scoop the "tamale" of each lobster into a bowl. Actually, on second thought, scoop out its tomalley/tomally. What we heard as "tamale" was actually Child saying tomalley (or tomally, as some people prefer). Previously, in all the years I'd eaten lobster, I'd only ever known the tomalley, the lobster's liver, as "that green stuff." Then we watched "The Lobster Show" and I was fascinated to learn that "that green stuff" had an actual name beyond "lobster's liver." Of course, in our ignorance we misunderstood dear Julia: "Oh, that's so cute. It's called the 'tamale.'" Thanks to one of our lobster-savvy readers for setting us straight. Anyway, getting back to the recipe: add homemade mayonnaise, Dijon mustard, minced capers, parsley, and chives. Stir well. Add salt and pepper to taste. If you're not a tomalley person this sauce'll make you a believer; if you are a tomalley person, all the better.

**To make drawn butter: place your butter in a small saucepan and melt it over low heat. When the butter has fully melted, remove it from the heat and set it aside. When the milk solids have settled, pour off the clarified butter on top into a serving dish. That's it.

***Oysters Rockefeller is testament to the fact that John D. had a similar impact on the formerly lowly oyster.